Sometimes, the best way to protect your defense is by adding offense.
There’s logic behind the argument that the Saints should have used their first two or three picks on defensive players. The group was among the worst in the league in most statistical categories. But there’s also logic in ensuring your offense can put up points week after week.
That’s where wide receiver Michael Thomas comes in. By selecting the Ohio State product, New Orleans is taking measures to alleviate the few woes the offense endured last season and ensure — or hope to ensure — it’s never easy to keep this team out of the end zone.
If that goal is successful, it will help the defense. After releasing wide receiver Marques Colston this offseason and adding tight end Coby Fleener, the road to maintaining an elite offense is much shorter than the one faced by the defense. And if the offense remains elite, then that will take some burden off the defense.
Besides, it’s not like New Orleans completely ignored the defense during the second day of the draft. It packaged a pair of picks to move back into the second round to draft Ohio State safety Vonn Bell. Time will tell if trading up was the right move. Right now, it’s clear this team is committed to getting players who can contribute this season on both sides.
The argument will be that Thomas was a luxury.
It’s true the offense makes stars of receivers. It turned Kenny Stills and Willie Snead, a fifth-round pick and an undrafted player, and turned them into 900-yard receivers the past two seasons. It’s entirely possible the offense could have moved forward with Brandin Cooks, Snead and Coleman at receiver and remained one of the NFL’s top passing offenses.
But the offense should be even better with Thomas, who caught 56 passes for 781 yards with nine touchdowns.
Thomas brings traits this offense was lacking, and there were times when the offense didn’t live up to its overall ranking. The yards came in bunches, but some of that was due to playing from behind or in arcade games.
“My competitiveness, my routes, my hands, my ability to high point the ball and just my passion for the game, and it’s where I have the most fun and I love to compete,” Thomas said.
Sean Payton agreed.
“He’s big. He’s competitive. I love his hands in traffic,” Payton said. “I think he’s got a very unique skill set. He’s got real strong hands. He’s got some good run after the catch.”
The Saints found its way into the end zone plenty last year after marching into the red zone. But if you dig beyond the surface, you’ll see Drew Brees completed only 48 percent of his passes from inside the 10-yard line. This placed him outside of the top 20 in the NFL. The only other time he’s been under 50 percent while with the Saints was in 2006.
Thomas’ numbers won’t you blow you away, just like none of his numbers will blow you away due to the way he was used at Ohio State. But he did catch five passes in the red zone last season with three touchdowns. And if you look at his other targets, he caught six of the seven passes thrown to him over the middle.
The only way to appreciate his ability making contested catches is by watching video. There, you’ll see he knows how to use his 6-foot-3 frame to shield defenders, and it’s very rare to see him drop a pass. But a lot of the traits that likely made him attractive to the Saints are, to some degree, are projections because of how Ohio State operates.
That also goes for his possible ability to get deep. He was only targeted 11 times on passes that traveled 20 or more yards. He caught five of them for 134 yards with four touchdowns. But you can see he can get deep on film, and the 4.4 speed he flashed at his pro day (4.5 at the NFL combine) suggests he shouldn’t be too limited in that regard. So does the fact he possesses the talent to turn short slants into huge gains.
That made scouting Thomas somewhat challenging.
“You’ve got to really dig on tape and really spend time on finding his touches, finding his attempts,” Payton said. “He was someone when the process was over with that we had at the receiver position real high on that list. We love his skill set.”
When asked about his role at Ohio State, Thomas did not want to discuss the way he was used and if it at times did not allow him to flash his full array of abilities.
“That is in the past now,” Thomas said. “I am a part of the Saints organization, and I am ready to come in and compete for a starting job and help this team win games and get to a Super Bowl.”
Being able to get deep would help. Being able to contribute over the middle could be huge. This is where Marques Colston used to make his living, and now that element of the offense is gone. Coleman could help in this regard, but it’s no guarantee. On 49 targets last year, Coleman was targeted over the middle only 16 times.
Thomas should make this offense more explosive and harder to defend. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where defensive coordinators are picking their poison when Thomas, Fleener and Cooks are on the field together.
And that should also help take pressure off the defense.